Exodus 34:29-35; II Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36

February 8, 2016

TRANSFIGURATION

Three different accounts of Transfiguration.  Let’s look at the Transfiguration of Moses.  What is really going on?  Shall we take the veil as an historical fact, or did those who composed the account mean to speak in symbols?

Almost certainly the veil is a symbol, and not a factual account of actual events.  An account of actual events would mean little to us.  But God intends the Bible to be like a treasure map for spiritual prospectors.  So what is the pot of gold here, and why does the Bible speak in terms of a veil?

We call Moses’s experience a Transfiguration… but what exactly is a Transfiguration?  I figure it this way.  The Jewish theologian and philosopher, Martin Buber, wrote about two, contrasting forms of relationship: I-Thou and I-It.  In an I-Thou relationship, I see you as a whole, unified person.  I do not analyze you or evaluate you, I am just with you.  In fact, it’s as if you and I shared one “I”.  No thoughts or ideas of mine come between us.  You’ve had this experience.  Think of a time you were in a deep, intimate conversation.  If the other’s thoughts wandered, you felt it.  You knew the other had slipped out of the I-Thou relation and into the I-It relation.

The I-It relation sees the other as an object, and even sees itself as an object.  In the I-It relation I may analyze you and judge you.  Separateness and detachment characterize the I-It relation, like a good doctor with a patient.  In contrast, mutuality and reciprocity characterize an I-Thou relation, like intimate friends or lovers.  But note: there is nothing wrong with I-It.  We need I-It with its analytical powers to live in the world and conduct our lives.

When it comes to God, the I-Thou relationship shifts into a whole different register, as if we shifted from gazing at the moon to gazing at the sun.  Unlike the things of this world, God can never be investigated or examined… never be known as an objectGod can only be known as an absolute presence.  Think of the way a person who is totally blind knows when the sun comes out — a warm, embracing presence.

The Bible tells us repeatedly that Moses went up on the mountain to be with God.  It’s a way of saying that in order to be with God in an I-Thou way Moses had to rise above all the daily business that normally occupied his mind — all his duties, deliberations, decisions.  He had to set them aside and let God be his all-in-all.  To be in an I-Thou relation with God is not necessarily a Transfiguration, but when it reaches an essential degree of clarity or of openness, it is.

Think how it must have been for Moses when it was time to go back down, to tear himself away from the divine presence — away from knowing, as Julian of Norwich said, that “…[A]ll shall be well.  And all shall be well.  And all manner of things shall be exceedingly well.”  He was moving from one world to another.  He had to put his thinking mind back in gear, his analytical mind that he used to solve the problems of the community.  He had to go from I-Thou to I-It.

The veil stands for that transition, for once again putting on his thinking, problem-solving mind.  To be face-to-face with God he had to set aside that mind and simply, like a sunbather, bask in God’s presence.  Also, when he came back among the people, he needed to share with them the spiritual insights that God had given him.  These were I-Thou moments, and his face still shone.  But after that it was back to business as the CEO, and for this he needed the veil — his rational mind.

Jesus’ Transfiguration story is similar.  He was joined in his Transfiguration by Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets — the foundation stones of Judaism.  Perhaps this detail is meant to suggest that, for his followers, Jesus would be the third foundation stone of faith.

Paul, too, had an I-Thou experience.  He was on the road to Damascus, very much in the grip of his I-It mind.  He was using it to eradicate the Jesus movement from within his religion.  As he neared Damascus, a blinding light knocked him to the ground.  Jesus spoke to him out of that light, and Paul realized that he was face-to-face with the divine.  It took him three days before he was able to return to his I-It mind, to put on the veil, to direct affairs again.  Only now he was directing affairs in exactly the opposite direction.  He became one of Jesus’ disciples.

With this in mind, perhaps you are as puzzled as I am.  In the passage from Paul’s letters that we heard just now, why did Paul twist the story of Moses’s Transfiguration?  Why use it to belittle Judaism?  There was nothing in the Exodus account about the veil serving to hide the light of Moses’s face from the people.  Nothing about the glory of the Transfiguration being set aside in Moses.  Nothing about the veil serving as a symbol for a hardened, unreceptive mind.

Here is how I make sense of that passage.  Paul was a brilliant man, well schooled in his religion and a passionate advocate for Judaism as he understood it.  He had lived his whole life in the I-It mode, and done so very effectively.  He had no idea there was any other mode.  Then he had an I-Thou experience on his way to Damascus.  The difference astounded him.  Judaism, as he knew it, had not prepared him for Transfiguration and he thought there was something lacking in Judaism.

I’m not sure he was wrong.  The Christian religion is open to the same charge.  Doesn’t the Church make religion chiefly a matter of obedience to its teachings?  Is not sin a principal, if not paramount interest of Christianity as commonly understood?  Aren’t we taught to pray to a God “out there” or “up above” and to make our prayers into I-It prayers — that is, prayers to meet our needs and solve our problems?  If that is what our religion does for us, it is no wonder that people, especially young people, are leaving the Church.

And yet Paul was wrong. Think of Jesus.  Like Paul, Jesus grew up and lived within the Jewish religion.  Its teachings formed his thinking and his doing.  Judaism enabled his Transfiguration.  Afterwards, he felt no need to fault his religion, but like Moses, he shared with his followers what he had learned in those intense I-Thou encounters he had with God.  Judaism served Jesus well, and it can serve people today well, too.

Paul was also right when he continued by saying, “And all of us with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another….”  That is, we too can be in I-Thou relations with God and with each other.   We, too, can be candidates for Transfiguration: that is the pot for gold.

 

Paul is also right that I-It and I-Thou are not like two sides of a door — either you are in one place or in the other.  In other words, I-Thou has degrees.  Most of us have had an I-Thou experience.  One of the monks at Holy Cross Monastery gave me an example of I-Thou.  He said, it’s like sometimes you hang up from a phone call and you just sit there for a moment or two in a deep, deep peace.  He didn’t put it this way, but I would say that for a few moments and to some degree you are simply aware of dwelling in the divine presence.

Quoting Julian of Norwich again: after a prolonged and deep immersion in her own Transfiguration, she wrote, “For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the whole,  so are we, soul and body, clad in the Goodness of God, and enclosed.”  To be sure, Jesus experienced the Transfiguration to a supreme degree, but any of us can have at least a taste of the peace and joy of the I-Thou relation with God.  Communion is just such a taste.

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SANCTIONS AND CONSEQUENCES

January 17, 2016

“I have a dream.”  All across the country this weekend people are being reminded of Martin Luther King Jr. and his historic speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963.  We can almost recite from memory parts of that speech: “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children…[And] we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream…”

Today, however, it is the Episcopal Church that has the dream of making justice a reality for all of God’s children.  It is we Episcopalians who will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.  The prophet Amos spoke those stirring words in the 8th century BCE, and still, they are as stirring today as they were in the 8th century BCE or in 1963.

The steps of the Lincoln Memorial were King’s megaphone; ours are the mediaThe New York Times reported on last Thursday’s convocation at Canterbury Cathedral, where 37 archbishops from around the Anglican Communion suspended the Episcopal Church.  The headline read:  “Anglican Church Disciplines U.S. Episcopals Over Gay Marriage.”  What did the discipline entail?   For the next three years, Episcopal leaders will not be allowed to represent the Anglican Communion at meetings with other churches or other faiths, will not be appointed or elected to internal committees and will not be allowed to participate in decisions in the Anglican Communion “relating to doctrine or polity.”

For those of you who have not read the details, it’s important to emphasize what the Archbishop of Canterbury said.  He played down the decision.  “We don’t have the power to sanction anyone,” he said.  “It’s not a sanction; it’s a consequence,” he stressed.  Our own Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, said, “… it’s important to remember that we are still part of the Anglican Communion, we are the Episcopal Church.”

I want to make two points.  First, what a God-given opportunity this gives us to witness to our faith!  Second, how can we respond to this statement from the Archbishop of Canterbury?  He said, “The church’s provinces, while autonomous, are “interdependent” and obligated to one another not to deviate from doctrine.”

With regard to the first point, witnessing to our faith, Jesus commanded us, his followers, to reach out to people everywhere and let them know that life has a transcendent, eternal dimension; that there is a God and the nature of God is only to love; and that, as Martin Luther King wrote, “…there is something unfolding in the universe, whether one speaks of it as an unconscious process, or whether one speaks of it as unmoved mover, or whether someone speaks of it as a personal God. There is something in the universe that unfolds for justice….”

We followers of Jesus have had a tough time lately.  Christianity has been written off by much of the secular world; and even some of our own members are drifting away on Sunday mornings from the liturgy to the soccer fields.  But this week the media have given us a megaphone.  Suddenly the secular world has to hear that the Episcopal Church stands for justice and love; that our church believes Jesus’ message of mercy extends to all people, especially those who have been marginalized.

Our Presiding Bishop put it this way, “For many who have felt and been rejected by the church because of who they are, for many who have felt and been rejected by families and communities, our church opening itself in love was a sign of hope.”  And he affirmed that the Episcopal Church will not go back on that.

One priest from Pasadena, California, is among the many who are speaking out.  She wrote in the Letters to the Editors section of the Times, “As a lifelong Episcopalian and a married lesbian priest, I think [the suspension is] not only an acceptable cost, it’s a badge of honor in some ways.”  Christianity, at least the Episcopal tradition, is going to seem a lot more relevant and important to people who had, before Thursday’s events, written us off.

But what about the second point?  We cannot simply rejoice about the opportunity this has given us to make public our faith and practice.  We must also take seriously the idea of mutual responsibility; that is, our denomination’s obligation to the other provinces not to deviate from doctrine.  How do we come to terms with this breach of our obligation?

We might think in terms of two stages of life, the formative stage and the transformative stage.  Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk, reads the story of how Moses received the Ten Commandments as symbolic of these two phases.  Commandments, rules, laws, and norms are essential during the formative stage of our life if we want to become mature adults with a strong identity and a reliable character.  So is obedience essential.

However, we reach a point in our development where we are ready for an “open system and a larger horizon.” as Richard Rohr puts it, “so that the soul, the heart, and the mind do not close down inside of small and constricted space.”  This is the transformative stage, symbolized, as Richard Rohr sees it, when Moses received the second set of Commandments.  They may have read the same, but Moses, himself, was no longer the same.  He had developed into the transformative phase of life and become a real leader and prophet.  Only after he breaks the first set of Commandments and receives the second set does he see God’s glory, and only afterwards does his face shine.  Put it this way:  Moses came to understand that he could eat the apple, as God intended him to do, when both he and the apple were ripe.

This line of thought does not absolve us from the possibility that the Episcopal Church acted in error.  Maybe the apple was not ripe when our General Convention voted last summer to adopt a liturgy for gay marriage.  Maybe we should not have eaten.  This is the agony of being human: it’s always possible we made a mistake.

Let me close by returning to Paul’s words to the Corinthians.  “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit….”  The Episcopal Church firmly believes we have been given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good; we have been given the utterance of wisdom and knowledge; we have been given faith by the same Spirit.  The Episcopal Church believes this; and equally it affirms the motto of Pope John XXIII:  “In essentials unity; in nonessentials liberty; and in all things, charity.”  To those who disagree with us: charity.  To those who would like to sanction us: charity.  In all things charity!

HOLY NAME

January 11, 2016

The Danish have an old folk saying, “A beloved child has many names.”   When I heard that I thought of my grandfather who loved me very much.  He used to call me Susie Q, or Sunshine, but my favorite was Skeezix, after the comic strip kid in “Gasoline Alley.”  Skeezix, I knew, served as  code for “I love you.”

I’m drawing your attention to names, because one of the important feasts of the church year – the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus — falls in January, but rarely a Sunday.  So this sermon will  focus on the spiritual importance of names, including our own.  I’ll use this verse from Scripture: Revelation 2:17, where God says: “To everyone who conquers I will give … a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.”  Mysterious, isn’t it?

First we need to ask what is meant by, “…to everyone who conquers.”  Have we conquered?  Are we in that group to receive a white stone and a new name?  Here’s the test.  Have I wrestled with my faith?  Have I doubted some of its teachings?  If the answer is: “no, I have never doubted; I have never needed to wrestle with my faith,” then I have not yet conquered.  Religion has not yet done its transforming work in me.  I are not yet ready to receive my white stone and new name.

On the other hand, suppose I answered, “yes, I’ve wrestled and I didn’t get any answers, so I’ve given up.”  This also amounts to failing the test.  So who will conquer and be given a new name?  Those who doubted their faith, questioned their faith, wrestled with it, got nowhere, and still wrestled on.  “O, God, if you are a God of love how is there so much suffering in the world?”  “O, God, if you are a God who answers prayers, why did my child die?”  “O God, can non-believers be saved?”  “O God, are you even real?”  Mature faith questions and doubts but keeps on living by faith.  Mature faith knows doubts and questions will arise to the very end; it knows that only in wrestling with them can we grow spiritually; it knows that conquering does not mean achieving answers, but overcoming the temptation to quit wrestling.

Let’s make no mistake.  This is not about who is saved and who is not; this is not about who is out and who is in.  We are all in.  We are all saved.  We are all loved equally, infinitely.  That’s a given.

We may be sure that Jesus conquered.  Who else in history wrestled with God so intensely, so intimately, so incessantly?  Who else achieved such spiritual insight that he could call God, Papa?  Say that he and the Father are one?  Even trust that in going to the cross he would triumph?  So how did the white stone and the new name play out in Jesus’ life?

I reconstruct Jesus’ life this way.  When he was born they named him Jesus, meaning Salvation.  He grew up with an unusual aptitude for questioning his faith.  Remember how his parents found him at the age of 12 at the temple in Jerusalem, debating with the elders and amazing them with his insights?  Then as a young adult, longing for an even closer walk with God, he went to John the Baptist.  There, at his baptism, he received the white stone with his secret name.  I picture the stone as a smooth, river-rounded stone that would fit in the palm of his hand.

Here we have to stop and acknowledge that the book of Revelation speaks in symbols, images, and metaphors.  A stone stands as a perennial symbol for truth, bespeaking what is solid and enduring.  In this sense it also serves as a symbol for our true selves – not our personalities or values or opinions, but for our deepest, eternal, true identity.  Even if we’ve never thought about this symbolism, many of us can remember picking up a particular stone, noticing its special attraction, and taking it home as a keepsake.  If someone asked us why, we’d probably say: it brings me comfort.

So at his baptism Jesus realized there was more to himself than he thought; he became aware of a deeper life within him, what we could call his true self, his eternal life.  The book of Revelation symbolizes this with a white stone.

What, then, about the new name that “no one knows except the one who receives it?”  Here again we are dealing with symbolism.  This new name is not a sound, and it cannot be written.  Think of it as your soul’s fingerprint — a code God lovingly imprinted to identify you, uniquely.  No one ever born or ever to-be-born has that same fingerprint.  Even identical twins, immediately after they’re born, do not have the same fingerprints.  So each of us is a unique, never-to-be-repeated expression of God’s love and saving power.

Why do I put it that way?  We know that Jesus’ given name means Salvation.  But what was the secret name written on his white stone?  That name told how God saves.  This is true for all of us.  My “new name” is my “action” name.  It tells how I, uniquely, will play a part in God’s saving action.  In Jesus’ case perhaps his secret name was “Trampling Down Death by Death,” as it says in the Prayer Book.  We cannot know.  Only Jesus and God know.

This helps me understand why the white stone and the new name are only received once we have conquered.  It requires a mature faith, a tested faith, to be ready to play a conscious, intentional part in God’s salvation.  Why?  Because until I am ready to live for the good of others and not for myself alone, I can only be of limited service.  I am not yet ready to seek out the fingerprint on my soul, and discern how I, uniquely, am called to serve.

Let me give you a rather obvious example of someone who gave evidence early on of where to seek for her new, secret name.  The primatologist, Jane Goodall, is known for her study of chimpanzees and for her love of animals and nature.  Jane grew up in London.  When she was 18 months old she lovingly collected earth worms, brought them home, and at night took them to bed with her.  We cannot know her secret name, but we might guess, in a general way, the unique part God called her to play in God’s salvation.

What about us?  Thomas Merton once wrote, “Every man has a vocation to be someone: but he must understand clearly that in order to fulfill this vocation he can only be one person: himself.”  This is not telling us we must earn that stone and secret name.  God assigned those to us before we were born.  God longs to give them to us; longs for us to be ready to receive them.  Some of us receive them early in life, some late; some receive them clearly, some have to keep groping.  No one is turned away.  Ever.

The fact that we are here in church suggests that all of us continue to wrestle with our faith.  We are ready to receive a white stone and a new name.  Some of us know our new name already.  Some of us are still seeking to discern it more clearly.  Yet all of us do play a part in God’s saving action.  The inexpressible beauty of living by our soul’s secret name may be compared to the fierce joy of hearing God’s all-loving voice call us each by that once-given, intimate name.  Hearing my grandfather call me Skeezix was only a tiny foretaste.

Mark 10:46-52

October 27, 2015

Let’s go through the story of Bartimaeus a second time and highlight some details we may have overlooked.  For instance, we see that only Jesus and his disciples entered Jericho, but a large crowd tagged along on their way out.  Was it that Jesus won many new disciples in Jericho?  Perhaps a few; but most of the crowd were curiosity seekers, like the throngs that would tag along after a circus.  They hoped to see some wonders.

Another detail.  Is there anyone here who has not passed a beggar sitting on the sidewalk?  We may place some cash in their hand, or even stop and chat briefly, but we all know that nothing we can give will alter their situation significantly.  They need more than funds.  In fact, for them some of the most basic human needs are lacking — the need for respect, for self-esteem, the need to be able to contribute, and above all, the need to belong.  Actually, we don’t need to be a Bartimaeus to suffer acute loneliness or a sense of uselessness; and many successful people harbor and hide an absence of self-worth.

Another detail.  When Jesus called for him, Bartimaeus threw off his cloak.   He left it lying there beside the road, his warm covering at night, his shelter from the sun, his protection from sand storms and rain, his pockets for food and whatever wealth he had.  He would have been like a hermit crab, pried cruelly out of its shell.

A final detail.  Jesus said, “your faith has made you well.”  Here the Greek word translated well cannot be understood as cured or even healed.  A good translation might be, complete, whole and secure.  “Your faith has made you complete, whole, and thus secure.”  Picture an arch: until the keystone is dropped into place, the arch can collapse, because it isn’t complete.  Faith is that keystone in the arch of our lives..

With these details in mind, let’s ask ourselves what Jesus meant when he said faith; “Your faith has made you complete, whole, and secure.”  What did Jesus see in Bartimaeus that he recognized as faith?

Can we say that Jesus meant Bartimaeus’s trust in Jesus’ power to restore his sight?  Possibly, but look at it from Jesus’ point of view.  Here is a man Jesus has never met, with whom he has no relationship, who suddenly jumps up, and most irresponsibly casts aside his cloak, and — solely on the basis of Jesus’ reputation — asks to see again.  It could well be the action of a credulous fool, on a par with people who sell all they have and head for a mountain top, because they believe the world is about to end.  Jesus wouldn’t have called that faith; more likely credulity.

But Jesus was noticing something else.  He would have known the price of being blind and a beggar.  It means being a social outcast.  If we have any doubt look at the way the members of the crowd tried to shut Bartimaeus up.  In their eyes he was beneath their notice, and certainly beneath Jesus’ notice.  So on the one hand, Jesus would have guessed his loneliness, his lack of self-esteem, and how prone he would be to depression.

On the other hand,  Bartimaeus did not act that way!  On the contrary, he expected that Jesus would want to see him.  He shouted out to Jesus, confident that he had every right to Jesus’ attention.  And when the crowd around Jesus snarled at him to shut up, he wasn’t cowed.  His self-assurance gave him the élan to shout more insistently.  So Jesus was drawn up short.  In other words, he confronted an experience at odds with his expectations, and he realized something deeper was going on.  Put it this way: Jesus saw that his cloak was not Bartimaeus’s security.

Let’s review.  First the blind man was led to Jesus.  Then Jesus said, “Go, the deep faith you already have has made you complete, whole and secure.”  Maybe that was all Bartimaeus needed: for a spiritual authority to confirm what he knew in his bones.  He knew that in God’s eyes he stood on a level with everyone, and like everyone, he was unique and uniquely loved.  He knew he had gifts of love and service to offer on a par with anyone else’s.  He knew that nothing could ever separate him from God’s love, and that was all that mattered in the end.  He knew all that, because God was a personal presence for him.  And Jesus recognized that as faith.

After that we are told that Bartimaeus regained his sight.  Shall we leave it at that?  Shall we leave it that Jesus, the wonder worker, performed a miracle?  Wowed the crowds?  No surprise then, that people were avid to tag along for the show!  But suppose the Gospel wants us to look deeper — to see that Jesus wasn’t about doing wonders, but about transforming the human heart?  To see that the real action is not “out there” but “in here”?

I’ve long thought that parishes should identify themselves, not as churches, but as vision clinics.  Every one of us is blind to one degree or another.  We come to church to say with Bartimaeus, “Let me see again.”  What are we really asking for?  What did Jesus do for Bartimaeus that we want too?

Let me answer that question and close with this story.  Stuart and I have two friends who live in London now, but were born, raised, and educated in Syria.  They have watched with horror as nearly four million Syrians have left the country and nearly eight million are living as refugees within Syria.  In Syria this past summer they did what they could for 200 frightened children, who had fled from all over Syria, and who were living in shelters in Latakia.  Our friends created a summer camp.  Every day they gave the children lunch and snacks.  One day the lunches included a hamburger for each child.  One little girl refused to eat her hamburger.  Asked why, she replied that she wanted to take it home to share with her family — her family of ten people living in one room.

We can hear that story as if it were a wonder story, and indeed it is.  In our mind’s eye we watch in amazement as one puny hamburger gets divided ten ways.  And we watch in equal amazement as a small child acts with extreme generosity.  But those are the stories “out there.”  What is the story “in here”?

The real miracle cannot be seen, for it is not the child’s generosity. In fact, the child was not being generous.  The child simply did not see herself as separate from those she loved.  We don’t think of our right hand being generous when it washes the left hand, or when it puts food in our mouth or washes our face.  I believe this is what Jesus meant when he said in Matthew’s Gospel, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

It is not a wonder or even a miracle as we become like little children.  It is a transformation, a process — sometimes sudden, sometimes slow — that is invisible, except for those who, as Jesus said, “have eyes to see.”  I submit that this is what the Gospel means when it tells us that Bartimaeus “regained his sight.”  All of us experience the oneness of all things when we are little children.  Then gradually the world’s blindness overtakes us.

Like Bartimaeus, we want to say, “My teacher, let me see again.”  I invite us to make it our mantra — a centering phrase as we go through our day.  For we go, not as tag alongs, but as followers on the Way, people of faith — complete, whole and secure — knowing that what Jesus did for Bartimaeus he can do for us.  Amen.

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

August 31, 2015

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

James 1:17-27

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Collect of the Day Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

When I hear the story of Jesus’ hygiene critics, I think back to 1985. I was a new priest in the Diocese of California, serving as assistant rector to a stickler of a priest. The poor altar guild came in for his special attention. God forbid there should be a finger print on the chalice or a wrinkle in the altar cloth! One Sunday during worship he actually chastised a member of the altar guild from the pulpit. Why? He detected a faint lipstick stain on the purificator.

He had another characteristic. He had a few favorites in the congregation and the rest of the people he scarcely spoke to. What did it take to become a favorite? Wealth. He gave occasional dinner parties for those few, but the others would knock on the door of the rectory in vain.

Jesus was not saying in response to his challengers that washing hands, food, and cooking vessels was not important. It was; but those are externals, and God does not measure us by externals; God looks into our hearts. In other words, I could scrub my hands and food and vessels, and as I did so I could be planning a bank robbery; I could be working out the lie I would tell my spouse in order to see my lover. Religion would be very easy if washing is what religion consisted of. Jesus was simply saying that true religion (as the Collect puts it) is about inner scrubbing.

There is more to be said about what is inner. Let’s turn now to Jesus’ difficult words at the end of the reading. He speaks of what defiles us and lists “evil intentions”. It’s a daunting list, and I doubt any of us can say: none of that applies to me.

Here is one of our biggest challenges. On the one hand we know that what the Gospel calls “evil intentions” lie within us. On the other hand, as the reading from the Song of Solomon tells us, God calls us “my love, my fair one.” Hasn’t God noticed those evil intentions? Is it possible that God only sees what is external after all?

Some years ago I was on a one-week silent retreat. Not only was there to be no speaking, we were to keep our eyes lowered at all times — no eye contact, no awareness even of who we were passing. The silence and forced inactivity made it impossible to ignore what was going on in my mind. I heard such thoughts as this. How rude she is! How self-important he acts! How pushy. Look how much food he’s taking! I discovered a zoo full of ugly, judgmental thoughts! Is God calling that “my love, my fair one”?

How do we get past the contradiction? Are we God’s love, God’s fair one? Or are we full of “the rank growth of wickedness” as the letter of James says? It depends on who we mean by “I”. Yes, my mind was full of ugly, judgmental thoughts; but there was also the one who was noticing those thoughts and who was saddened by what she saw. That one who noticed, the witness, that is “I”.

I cannot disavow those ugly thoughts, but I do not need to define myself by them. “I” am not my “evil intentions,” though I do have them. “I” am the one who notices them and notices the pain they cause.

I also notice this: as long as I identify with “the rank growth of wickedness”, I am not free; my “evil intentions” hold me in thrall; I’ll be locked in mortal combat with them as long as I live.

Yet if I define myself as the one who notices, I am free. I can look at those thoughts, I can see what a source of unhappiness they are, and I can choose how to respond. I can choose self-contempt; or I can choose compassion; I can choose love; I can choose to see them as the products of ignorance, fear, self-doubt, and treat them as I would a toddler who is up to no good. In short, I can see myself as God does, as “my love, my fair one.”

Think of it this way. When God says, “Arise my love, my fair one, and come away,” God is calling us to come away from identifying with the rank growth of wickedness. It’s as if God is saying, You are not the “rank growth of wickedness.” It is there, but it is not you. You are the one who notices. You are the one who is free to choose how to respond. You are the one onto whom I have “grafted” my love. You are the one who lives eternally in the kingdom of God.

Is this denial? Like Holocaust denial, all those “evil intentions” never happened? No. It is simply self-clarification. If I act out my evil intentions I will suffer the consequences. No denial there. If I hurt other people I will feel pain and grief. No denial there. Self-clarification puts me into the only possible position from which I can deal with those “evil intentions” and make a change. Let me put it this way: the only effective weed-killer for that “rank growth of wickedness” is compassionate understanding on the part of the one who notices.

This is what true religion is about. I invite you to accept God’s invitation to, “Arise, my love my fair one, and come away.” This is a valid, tender form of prayer, just to spend time being the one who notices. Notice the “evil intentions,” the “rank growth of wickedness.” Surround them with your compassion as you would someone struggling under a needless burden. This is inner scrubbing and Jesus would approve.

John 6:56 – August 23, 2015

August 30, 2015

This sermon is offered in response to the amazing work of our Bible study class in making a scale model of Solomon’s Temple.  Let me begin with a detective story.  Most of us like a good detective story, but you might gape if I told you my favorite.  It’s the Bible.  By this sermon’s end you might agree.

The detective in this case was named Jean-François Champollion, born in 1890 near Grenoble in southeastern France.  He was the youngest of seven children born to a notorious drunk for a father and an absentee mother.  Luckily his older brother, who had educated himself, cared for little Jean-François and taught him to read.  It soon became clear that he had a prodigy on his hands.

Jean-François began by learning Latin and Greek, then added Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac and Chaldean.  Then he added Coptic, followed by Persian.  At the age of 11 the prefect of Grenoble took an interest in him.  This prefect had been with Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition, and showed Jean-François the hieroglyphs he had brought home with him, explaining to the boy that they were unintelligible.  Jean-François replied, “I shall succeed in reading them.”

At the age of 15, Champollion presented a paper before an academic body in Grenoble, arguing that the language of the ancient Egyptians, in which they wrote the hieroglyphic texts was actually related to Coptic.  The members admitted him into the Academy on the spot.

In Paris at the age of 17 he first began working on the Rosetta Stone.  The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 and bore three languages — Hieroglyphs, demotic, and Greek.  It proved to be the key to solving the mystery of the hieroglyphs.

Many had tried to solve the mystery of the hieroglyphs before Champollion, but without success.  Champollion, uniquely, approached the task with a method, and on September 14th, 1822, he finally solved the mystery.  He discovered the key which opened the door into the vast, hidden treasures of ancient Egyptian literature and civilization.

How does Champollion’s detective work relate to the Bible?  Let’s call the Bible a spiritual Rosetta Stone.  Like Champollion, we will approach our Rosetta Stone with a method.  This method, which involves four steps, has been used for over 2,000 years, so we’re on well-tried ground here.

The first step is the literal interpretation; we could call it the simple historical narrative.  I’ll give you all four steps here, then go back and give examples.  The second step is the symbolic interpretation, where details in the narrative can stand for something else.  Third is the comparative interpretation; this calls for pairing up this text with a similar one to seek a broader and possibly deeper meaning.  Fourth comes the mystical interpretation, in which the meaning comes through revelation.

Now let’s be our own detectives, put ourselves in Champollion’s place, and take for our text the reading from First Kings.  We can picture the action, thanks to the model of the Temple that the Bible study class made.  First, the literal approach tells how the priests brought the ark of the covenant to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim.  And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD.

Using the second, the symbolic, approach to that same text, we might note the presence of the cherubim.  They could signify the divine protection of the ark of the covenant; or they could signify what great importance God attaches to the covenant; or how holy the inner sanctuary is, and how full of awe and wonder.

Applying the third approach, the comparative one, to that same text — offers lots of possibilities.  Let’s pair this up with  another instance when a cloud darkens the daylight.  Exodus chapter 24 springs to mind, that great pivotal day when Moses sealed the covenant between God and the people.  After doing that Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain to receive the tablets of stone. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.  For me, this expands my sense of that day when the ark was installed in the inner sanctuary.  It suggests that   God was not only enshrining  the ark, but the stone tablets, the Law.  They could almost be one, God and the Law.

Finally, let’s try the fourth approach.  The fourth approach calls for scarcely any work on our part.  We must simply wait in the presence of the text to discover if God has anything to suggest to us through it.

I can only tell you what I received, and you have to decide if that seems true for you or not.  I reflected on the construction of the house — how detailed the instructions were, involving much hammered gold and beauty of design.  I reflected on how the Bible is not just another book of information, but (to speak poetically) a love letter from God, addressed to me personally — to each of us personally.

Then it came to me that the house is God’s way of holding up a mirror to me.  I am that house, a temple, where God dwells within.  However much the world may tell me I am flawed; God is telling me I glow with beauty and hammered gold.

What about the inner sanctuary, the most holy place?  Don’t I have such a place within myself?  A meditative place where I go, apart from all my thoughts and concerns, just to be in communion with God?  Just to be renewed in God’s spirit?

The presence of the cloud agrees with this interpretation.  Again and again in Scripture the cloud is synonymous with God’s presence.  The cloud is mysterious and paradoxical, sometimes brilliant and filled with fire; sometimes so dense as to create utter darkness.  Remember the story of the Transfiguration in Matthew’s Gospel?  Paradoxically, it speaks of a bright cloud overshadowing the disciples; and from it God spoke.  It seems to be the nature of the cloud to separate us from our heads, from our thinking and perceiving minds, because the only way we can come near to God is with our whole being, where in whole-hearted trust, we simply abandon ourselves into God’s loving presence.

Notice that the four steps never contradict each other.  They only build, one upon the other.  If we just stopped at the literal level, already we have learned a lot.  That is, God is not distant in the heavens; God dwells among us.  Then at the second level we add to that the understanding that God values immensely our mutual covenant.  Add to that the third step, and we learn that God cares mightily about how we treat each other, and gave us Ten Commandments to teach us how to live.  Finally, add to that the fourth step and the whole array flips.  What was external to us, now also becomes internal.

Let’s step back now and ask what is the result of our detective work?  By means of the Rosetta Stone, Champollion discovered the key which opened the door into the vast, hidden treasures of ancient Egyptian literature and civilization.  By means of the Bible we have discovered a far more important key.  Champollion’s key was about there and then and them; our key is about here and now and us.  Our key opens the whole vast realm of the hidden treasures of the kingdom of God to us.  We can apply that key again and again to passages throughout the Old and New Testaments.  Each time we do, a new door opens before us — a door into freedom, peace and love.

Let’s resolve to become detectives on a regular basis.  Let’s find a place in our homes for the Bible — not stuffed into a bookshelf, but laid in a special place.  Let’s remember that it is not an object to be handled, but a cloud to be entered.

Ephesians 3:14-21

July 28, 2015

Perhaps I’m alone in this, but the Epistle runs over me like a sluice of words.  I do sense the writer’s passion, and I jump to attention at the thought of being “filled with all the fullness of God.”  What I do not fathom is how to tie all those wonderful words to my actual life.  What would it feel like to be “filled with the fulness of God”?

Suppose we asked Jesus to interpret this Epistle reading.  I imagine he would say that the writer was describing what he, Jesus, called the kingdom of God.  Since that was Jesus’ main teaching, I’d like to explore what he meant by kingdom of God; and in the process it might give us an idea of what the Epistle writer meant by being “filled with the fulness of God.”

Here’s my approach to understanding the kingdom of God.  In 1985 Stuart and I were living in California, within a five mile radius of Stanford Hospital.  A family from Boston had been accepted into the Hospital’s heart-lung transplant program, provided they could find housing within a five mile radius of the hospital.  We volunteered.

Laura was in her 30’s and had had a weak heart from birth.  Now it was showing signs of giving out.  She and her mother and father came to live with us in the spring, and it was not until summer a year later that a heart-lung became available — donated by a young motorcycle rider.  Those were 14 heart-wringing months.  Laura’s finger nails became blue, and then more and more blue.  She came to the table for meals, but as the months went by she had to lie down and rest more and more frequently between bites.

The call came from the hospital just in time, as it seemed to me.  The day after the surgery I went to visit Laura.  She was still in bed, but her fingernails were pink, her eyes sparkled, and her voice was full of inflection.  I witnessed a nearly instant transformation.

Laura’s experience helps me understand Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God.  Judaism in Jesus’ day centered around the sacrificial system in the temple.  People brought an animal to the temple; a priest would slay it; and drain out all of the blood.  This draining was the crucial thing.  The people could take the carcass and they might make a feast with it; but the blood belonged to God.  The blood stood for life.  The blood was sacred.  I like to think that if you brought an animal to the priest you stood by as it was slaughtered with your hand on its head, signifying that this animal was standing in for you.  Symbolically, you were giving your life to God.

Laura’s experience helped me actually feel why Judaism attached such awe to blood.  Through it God gave life and God took away life.  Given all that I’ve just said, imagine the shock Jesus’ disciples felt at the last supper.  Jesus told them to drink blood — to imbibe what was sacred, what must not be touched.  He was giving them more than a tame metaphor.  When they drank that wine they would be taking into themselves Jesus’ own life.  Their hands and arms must have trembled and shook as they passed the cup, one to another.

Jesus knew — so to speak — that after he was gone the spiritual fingernails of his disciples would begin to turn blue.  It wouldn’t be enough for them to repeat what he had taught them; though that was essential too.  He needed them to have access to the same spiritual life that he had.  That is, they needed to have access to the kingdom of God.  You could say that his blood needed to flow in their veins.

In fact, during his whole ministry Jesus had seen people going about with blue fingernails, as it were.  He sees people in our day in that condition, too.  We take religion to be a matter of concepts, of right beliefs and of correct practices.  All of Jesus’ teaching aimed at a spiritual heart-lung transplant.  That is what he had in mind when he spoke about the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God was not just another concept, like truth or justice or salvation.  The kingdom of God was an experience of the whole body, of being immersed in love.  St. Paul put it this way, “In [the kingdom of God] we live and move and have our being.”  Or as Jesus said to his disciples, “….[Y]ou will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”

There is a level of reality — the kingdom of God — that is deeper than concepts and practices.  Jesus could not define or explain the kingdom of God in his teaching, because it is not a concept; it is an experience, like waking up from surgery pulsing with energy.

The kingdom of God takes us out of our heads and into our hearts and bodies.  It takes us out of our ideas and into a felt sense of our common life — a felt sense of the same blood flowing in you as flows in me.

Perhaps you are asking yourself this.  Why is what I am saying not just one more concept?  How does it become a living part of us?  How does the wine we receive at communion cease to be a nice ritual and become an actual transfusion — bringing forth pink fingernails, sparkling eyes, and a voice full of inflection?

Let’s go back to Laura.  Laura was dying; she had blood, but she needed more than blood.  She needed a heart and lungs to make it red.  What is the spiritual equivalent of that pair of organs?  Isn’t it prayer?

Prayer is not necessarily, or even primarily a matter of words.  Prayer is simple, grateful attention.  It can be practiced in the garden, at the easel, or in quiet repose with a loving, listening, divine presence.  Simple, grateful attention can be practiced in good health and in bad, in carefree times and times of worry.  Prayer, however we practice it, pumps the blood of Christ into every cell of our being, bringing love and eternal life.  Or as the writer to the Ephesians put it, through prayer ,“we may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

PENTECOST 2015

May 24, 2015

In 1980 I stood by at an open-heart surgery.  That was new surgery then, and the hospital where I was interning as a chaplain — Presbyterian in San Francisco — led the field in open heart surgery.  One day I summoned my courage and asked the preeminent surgeon if I could observe an operation.  I anticipated standing in a gallery above the operating room, so you may imagine my shock on the day of the operation when I found myself in green scrubs, standing on the operating room floor, at the surgeon’s left elbow, breathing through a little paper pyramid, with the patient’s head right before me.

Imagine my further shock when the surgeon took what looked like an ordinary electric skill saw and with a long, firm stroke, opened up the man’s breast bone.  Soon the heart itself lay bare; I could have reached out and touched it.

Two hours later, when the patient’s heart was back to pumping blood and his breast bone stapled together and his skin sewn up, I left the operating room in a daze.  For two hours I had been standing precisely on the threshold between life and death — not the concepts, but the bright red, pulsing reality.  I took the rest of the day off and went straight home to be alone.

This is not really a story about the mechanics of open heart surgery; it is a story about transformation.  I made my way home with new eyes.  On the street, in the bus, on the train — I saw, not a bag lady, not a cable car repairman, not a professional woman in a business suit; but vulnerable, precious beating hearts — hearts held more intimately in God’s loving care than a new born baby.  I had just enough sense not to rush up to hug all those precious strangers, but that was my whole impulse.

Luke told a similar story in today’s reading.  His story wasn’t about a hospital, a surgery, or an open heart; rather, he wrote about a mighty wind, flames of fire, and a dozen different languages.  But his real story, like mine, was about the human soul being transformed.  In other words, it is about salvation.

Why did Luke choose those three events for his story?  First, why the mighty wind?  The wind symbolizes freedom.  Jesus said, “The wind* blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  The wind signifies the unbounded nature of the spiritual life.

Let me give you an example.  Our religious beliefs are meant to open our eyes to what faith makes possible — vast new vistas of what life can be.  But if beliefs become set in stone they act as barriers, and limit where we can go in our quest for greater intimacy with God.  For those who are “saved,” in other words, life is open on all sides.  We are never finished with flourishing.

Second, why the tongues of fire?  Luke’s readers would have connected them with another life-changing fire, the burning bush.  Remember the story?  Moses was still just a scared man on the lam when he saw a mysterious thing: a bush that was blazing, and yet was not consumed.   When he started to go near for a closer look, God actually spoke to him.  That was the moment when Moses went from being a man on the lam to being a man with a mission — a transformation of his whole identity, from being a leader of sheep to being a leader of a nation.

The burning bush held another message as well, one too deep for words; and perhaps Moses only came to understand it gradually over the years.  Through the symbol of a burning bush, God was, if you will, holding out a mirror to Moses.  “Look, Moses, a mystery, a sign of eternity, a life that does not depend on fuel.  See the true nature of your own life.”  ….That is also the true nature of our life.

Third, why the different languages?  Again, Luke’s people would have gone back to the only Bible they knew, what we call the Old Testament, and recalled the story of Babel — a story of division.  At that time the people all spoke one language and they mis-used it to worship their own technology.  God foresaw suffering if they continued, and gave them different languages to bring their project to a stop.  Pentecost reversed that.  The different languages remained, but understanding took place at a level beyond words.  Pentecost tells a story of divisions healed, a story of the underlying oneness of all creation — of unity in God beneath all the beautiful diversity.  This is a third aspect of salvation.

Friends, let’s step back for a moment.  Luke faced a dilemma.  He was writing to people, none of whom had known Jesus personally.  Luke needed them to know, not just about Jesus, but to know Jesus personally —  to experience what it was like to be in his presence.  Luke himself had never met Jesus, and yet he had come to know Jesus personally.  He doesn’t tell us how that came about, because it would not help us.  It could even mislead us into thinking that we could follow in his footprints.  Salvation is a journey we make on our own into the unknown.

So Luke could not tell his people directly, but he could do two things.  First, he can let us know it is possible; and second, he can tell a pointing story; and that is the story of Pentecost.  This story is not the experience in itself, but it points to the experience.

As we have seen, Luke used the wind to tell his people that the experience of knowing Jesus personally would have certain effects.  Freedom, for instance.  A relationship with Jesus would bring us freedom from constricting fears — such as fear of death, fear of failure or error, fear of loss, shame, even fear of false beliefs, which religion is prone to.  And freedom from always leads to freedom to.  It’s as if, like Moses, we’ve been in hiding for fear of Pharaoh, and now we are free to come out, stand our ground, and speak our truth, humbly but clearly.

Another effect.  Luke used fire to tell his people that the experience of knowing Jesus personally turns us inside out; that is, it transforms my sense of who I am.  Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself” put it this way, “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”  Not only do we sense how at-one we are with all creation, but at a deeper level, I sense how my life does not depend on this body and its fuel.  My life will go on eternally in the fiercely tender fire of God’s love.

Another effect.  Luke used different languages to tell his people that the experience of knowing Jesus personally means that you don’t need words to tell others about it.  I may not speak your language, I can still let you know by my love how I experience salvation, and that you can too.

We might call Pentecost the greatest of the Christian feasts.  We are celebrating how the experience of knowing Jesus personally did not end with his contemporaries.  That same transformation is ours to claim as well, but claim it we must.  Claim, not seek.

I was not seeking inner transformation when I asked to observe open heart surgery.  Afterwards, when it turned into a Pentecost experience, it wasn’t that something new had been added; but something dormant had been watered.  I claimed that experience as genuine and given by God — the experience of salvation.

But if salvation means going on in that blissful state of new freedom, new life and love, then salvation is a passing thing.  I didn’t stay on that mountain top.  But salvation is not like a merit badge, either you have it or you don’t.  Salvation is a process, the way an acorn is an oak tree.  But it helps to water it.

Forgive me if I’m being too fanciful, but picture God standing by with a watering can, longing to pour it out, freely and fully over each one of us.  We need only to open our hearts.  I have my own unique way of doing this, as do you, but let me offer a suggestion.  The thirteenth century theologian and mystic, Meister Eckhart, said “Nothing in the world resembles God so much as silence does.”

The suggestion is this.  Make room in your day for silence.  Go into it and let your heart be opened.  Not with a skill saw, but tenderly, from the inside, the way a leaf opens and unfurls into its full beauty through the action of the Holy Spirit.

 

MARK 9:2-9

February 16, 2015

LAST SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY – TRANSFIGURATION

2 Kings 2:1-12;  II Corinthians 4:3-6;  Mark 9:2-9

Suppose through some accident you got left behind.  You’ve been exploring the Carlsbad Caverns, part of a tour group.  Maybe you strayed off the path.  Maybe the guide didn’t do a head count; just started back up to the surface.  Suddenly you realize you are alone and the light has gone.  You’re afraid to move, afraid of becoming even more lost, afraid of falling or hitting your head.  You pat your pockets: no lighter, no matches, no flashlight, no iPhone or other device.

I’m trying to recreate the situation that challenged the early Jewish sages.  They weren’t thinking of caves, of course, but of the cosmos.  How did the first light arise?  Before suns or stars, and long before there was anything to burn, how did light begin?  With nothing to originate from, how did light originate?  They solved this mystery by embedding it in a larger mystery: “God said, ‘Let there be light.’”

No wonder the church dedicates a whole season of the year to the mystery of light.  Today is the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany, and I propose to grope around with you in that mystery.

Here’s one possibility.  Perhaps the sages wrote Genesis as a metaphor.  The darkness they wondered about was not physical darkness, but the kind of darkness that prevails when we have no moral flashlight, when we really don’t know what steps will lead us to the kind of society where every member can feel safe and secure — where we can feel free to be ourselves, free to express ourselves, free to love.

This would be like being in a cave without a match.  In this moral cavern I’m picturing, any move could make things worse; any move is fraught with fear; because we are lost in the dark.  Where, then, would this moral light come from?  We cannot answer: from the Ten Commandments; from good civil laws; from the teachings of parents and schools.  Because remember, we are picturing a moral cavern where, like the cosmos before God created light, no source of moral guidance exists.  Commandments and precepts would be like matches, oil lamps, or flashlights.

So we are thrown back again on God.  Where, then, could this moral light originate?  Might God have said, “Let there be Wisdom”?  And out of God’s own being, as spontaneous as the light that fills the universe, would come Wisdom.  And, just as light does, wisdom would manifest itself in countless ways, — in laws, in proverbs, in moral precepts, in parables, and most succinctly in the Ten Commandments.

That should be the end of the story; because moral light does fill the universe; but if so, why are we beset by violence, injustice, poverty, and fear?  I often lie awake at night, feeling as if a tidal wave of moral darkness is descending over us — over our nation and the world.  Do the sages have an answer to this?  Something isn’t working, but what?

We need to follow the story further, this time to today’s reading about Elijah and Elisha.  As Elijah’s disciple, Elisha looked to Elijah for his moral light.  He observed how Elijah conducted himself, how he treated people, what he taught — in short, how Elijah lived.  He noted that Elijah had tremendous power.  I don’t mean political power.  Rather, think of that third grade experiment with iron filings, a sheet of paper and a magnet.  Until the magnet is applied to the underside of the paper, the iron filings are scattered around chaotically.  Once the magnet draws near, the filings form into beautiful, orderly patterns.  Elijah’s presence among people acted like the power of that magnet.

Elisha knew he did not have that power, but he wanted it.  Elijah had the moral light we are speaking of within himself.  Elisha did not; he needed Elijah the way we need precepts — what I’m calling a flashlight in a cavern.  Elijah knew he could not hand over that power to Elisha.  If Elisha wanted that power it would have to come from God and would spring up from within Elisha, himself.

Elisha’s chance was coming.  The test was this.  Elijah would be taken away in a burst of light.  Perhaps it was the same light that Moses experienced when he came into God’s presence — a light so searing that any impurities of the soul would be consumed.  So if Elisha had any ulterior motive in seeking Elijah’s power — for instance, personal aggrandizement — he would be forced to look away.  Only purity of heart could follow that searing process through to the end.

This, I suggest, is the sages’s answer to my question, which is:  If moral light does fill the universe, what isn’t working?  Why is our society beset by violence, illness, injustice, and fear?  The answer?   Because it makes a difference where the light is coming from.  Too many of us are dependent on Elijah, so to speak, and not enough of us have taken the step Elisha took.

Picture those ancient tombs of the Pharaohs.  Passageways led deep underground, turning one angle after another, until finally no light penetrated.  How did they get sunlight down to the interior?  Mirrors.  One slave stood at the entrance and reflected sunlight down the stairs.  Another stood at the first corner and reflected that light down to the next corner; and so on many times, until the light of the sun shone, however weakly, in the burial chamber.

In a similar way, we can ask, “How do you know this is right?”  Answer: “My friend told me.”  “How do you know your friend is right?”  “Her mother told her.”  “How do you know her mother is right?”  “Her priest told her.”  “How do we know the priest is right?”  He read it in the Bible.”  How do you know he interpreted the Bible correctly?”  In other words, the light of truth can grow dim if it reaches us at all..  We need more strong sources of light and fewer, weaker reflections.

This is another way of saying what Paul was writing to the people of Corinth in today’s Epistle.  Paul was another who had, so to speak, passed the test as Elisha did.  Paul confessed, “We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.”  In other words, Paul, too, had stood up to the searing light of God’s presence and allowed it to burn away any self-seeking.

He went on to explain, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Among Jesus’ followers, some of us are like Elisha before Elijah was taken away, looking to someone, or some thing, outside of ourselves to provide the moral light we need.  All of us start out that way.  For Christians, that someone is Jesus, as mirrored through Scripture and the Church.  Some of us are like Elijah; we have the light within us.  As Christians we call it the light of Christ.

What can we do, supposing we, too, want that light within?  We, too, want that power of the magnet among iron filings?  One of my favorite hymns holds out the answer.  “Immortal, invisible, God only wise; in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”  What is that light inaccessible wherein God hides?

Let’s go back to the Carlsbad Caverns.  Supposing you got left behind.  Supposing, instead of panicking, you relaxed.  You recognized that at last you were in a place of absolutely no external distractions.  Supposing, gradually, all the internal distractions — all the busy thinking and planning and worrying — subsided and settled, matching the stillness and peace of the surrounding cave.  Then supposing you opened yourself to God’s presence, opened your eyes to the light behind all light, opened your ears to the silence behind all sound; opened your heart to the love behind all love.

Lent begins this coming Wednesday.  Why not find a Carlsbad Cavern, so to speak, somewhere in your daily routine?  Why not make it a practice to enter once or twice a day.  What might happen?  We might find ourselves, in the words of today’s Collect, “beholding by faith the light of his countenance….”  We might find ourselves transfigured.  AMEN

MATTHEW 22:15-22

October 19, 2014

Today’s Gospel offers us a cornucopia of things to learn.  Here are three quick ones.  First, Jesus can spot hypocrisy, no matter how much flattery surrounds it.  Second, you cannot trap God or put God in a corner; God is always free to move as God pleases.  Third, Jesus can turn any event, however unpleasant, into a teaching opportunity, as he does here.

One other learning might go by unnoticed, and it would be false.  The Evangelist suggests that the Pharisees were Jesus’ enemies.  Not so.  Jesus and the Pharisees saw eye to eye on many points, and Jesus respected their adherence to their faith.  Matthew wrote his Gospel many decades later, when tensions had arisen between the Jews who followed Jesus and those who followed the Pharisees.  Matthew retrojected the animosity he felt toward the Pharisees into the account he gave of Jesus and his times.  The result over succeeding centuries has been tragic for Jews, of course, but also Christians.

That being said, I want to turn now to what may be Jesus most profound teaching.  “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Let us ask three questions.  First, how do we give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s?  Second, how do we give to God the things that are God’s?  Third, is there a connecting link?  In other words, do we have two separate compartments inside ourselves, secular and sacred?

Here is a story we can refer to as we consider those three questions.  A Catholic nun, Mary C. Boys, tells this story about a photograph she took when she was attending a conference in Cape Town, South Africa.  She writes,  “The photo’s context is political: the wretched system of apartheid was in effect; Nelson Mandela was still in prison; the government had declared a state of emergency; troops patrolled the streets; danger was in the air.  Supporting the violent status quo, an unknown hand, no doubt white, had used thick black paint to scrawl this graffiti: HANG MANDELA!  But wait – someone else, probably with a darker hand, had come along and penciled the word ‘on’ between the two painted words.”

Now let’s try to imagine our own selves on that street in Cape Town.  Envision that heavy-handed black message: HANG  MANDELA.  That image conjures up thoughts and those thoughts arouse feelings of anger, hatred, judgment, fear, and so on.  Now envision that same image with the little word, “on” inserted: HANG on MANDELA!!  Seeing that, feelings of hope, courage, faith, possibility, purpose, trust, even love course through us.

So first question: how do we give to the emperor?  Well, who is the emperor?  Wouldn’t the emperor stand for the controlling forces of that whole political and economic system in which we live?  We give to the emperor in a tangible way by paying our taxes and in general by following the law.  But we also give to the emperor in a less tangible way.  We give over our minds.   We become embroiled in political conflicts.   They stir up thoughts that arouse anger, contempt, loathing or blame.  We let the media stir us up, sparking feelings of danger and threat — from Ebola, for instance.  At the end of the day we need a stiff drink and we twitch in our sleep from all the conflicts we are aware of, or even involved in.

Second question: how do we give to God?  One, we give to God by centering ourselves in the present moment — not becoming puppets to the thoughts and feelings that the emperor throws at us, but becoming aware of our bodies, our breathing, our blood coursing through us and our connection to all of creation.  Two, we give to God by giving thanks — as the Prayer Books says, “always and everywhere give thanks.”  Three, and above all, we give to God simply by being conscious of God’s presence.  Think of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace of God’s burning love.  That is just as much our truth — we are completely immersed in God’s intense love, a love that can never die down or burn out.  Our tragedy is this: too often we let the forces of the emperor screen us from that awareness.

Are these two separate compartments in us?  Secular and sacred?  Are we like computers with a binary switch: it’s either one or zero?  Or are the secular and the sacred somehow linked in us?  Think of the graffiti, HANG MANDELA.  Omit the “on” and we’re solidly in the Emperor’s world.  Pencil “on” in the middle, and we are in God’s world, but not necessarily separated from the Emperor’s world.  Too often people who are drawn to the sacred isolate themselves from the secular.

The answer is to create our own, inner graffiti: HANG ON SUSAN.  Hang on to your awareness of your body and the present moment.  Hang on to your awareness of your connection to all creation.  Hang on to your awareness that you are burning with life in the fire of God’s furnace where the fuel is only love.  The answer is to write that graffiti again and again on the wall of my mind.

Gradually that awareness will take over.  I’ll go through my day, and I’ll give to the emperor right enough.  I’ll give myself to healing the wounded, taking a stand for justice and integrity; modeling peace and forgiveness.  I’ll give to the emperor on my terms.  And at the end of the day?  No twitching.  No tension.  No stiff drink.

This will be our story.  We’ll be a lot like Jesus.  First, we’ll be quick to spot the hypocrisy of the emperor’s world and it won’t seduce us.  Second, we won’t be trapped or put in a corner, by any longing for the things of the emperor’s world.  Third, we can turn any event, however unpleasant, into a teaching opportunity for ourselves, simply by giving thanks.

We’ll become a lot like Jesus who befriended the people who tried to trap him.  In return, he gave them a beautiful teaching, one that would open for them the gate to eternal life.  We can live like Jesus in the Emperor’s world.